The Washington state Capitol building in Olympia.

The Washington state Capitol building in Olympia.

Austin Jenkins / NW News Network

There are three desks inside the marble walls of the Washington House of Representatives that, come next year, will have new faces from Southwest Washington sitting behind them.

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It’s up to voters to decide who among 10 total candidates will be sitting there.

Reps. Vicki Kraft, Brandon Vick and Larry Hoff, all Republicans, are not seeking reelection. Kraft has joined a crowded field bidding for U.S. Congress, while Vick and Hoff said they are ready to return to working as private citizens.

Among those vying for the open seats are current and former nurses, a teacher, an attorney, a small newspaper publisher, a former airline pilot and a security guard at the federal courthouse in downtown Portland.

With a little more than two months to go before the Aug. 2 primary, the field will begin campaigning in earnest to try and win one of the open spots. In interviews, they shared wide-ranging platforms that they hope will sway voters.

One thing is for certain, however: Recent election history won’t be much help to political prognosticators. Both districts involved – the 17th and 18th legislative districts – changed considerably in Washington’s recent redistricting process.

“Our demographics are changing,” said John Zingale, a teacher at Vancouver iTech Preparatory and Democrat running for the 18th district seat. “It’s becoming more diverse, with people of different backgrounds and different languages. And I think that’s a good thing.”

Until this year, the 17th Legislative District cut a swath from east Vancouver into central Clark County. Today, however, it pancakes across Camas and Washougal and well out into rural Skamania County. The district has one open seat.

The 18th, which has two seats open, once covered a circuit of Clark County’s smaller cities, like Camas, Battle Ground, La Center and Ridgefield. Now, it mainly covers chunks of central Clark County and northern Vancouver.

Republicans focus on inflation, crime

Judging only by the number of candidates, Republicans appear to be hungrier for the open seats. Seven of the 10 candidates are members of the GOP.

Of those interviewed by OPB, many expressed the most concern over rising inflation. Republicans took aim at Washington’s Democrat-controlled Legislature for spending a $15 billion budget surplus — a record amount — instead of giving taxpayers a break.

“We’ve got to do whatever tax relief we can at the state level,” said Greg Cheney, a Battle Ground attorney and a Republican running for the 18th District seat. “Gas tax, property tax, fees, user fees, park fees, whatever … anything we can do right now.”

John Ley, a former airline pilot and past Senate candidate who has frequently written for the local conservative news outlet Clark County Today, echoed the strategy to cut taxes. Ley is running for the same seat as Cheney.

“In an era of record revenues, we could afford to cut the state sales tax, still provide money for services and allow people to keep a little more of their money that way,” Ley said.

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Democrats’ attempts at police reform also fueled the candidates’ bids for office.

In 2020, Democrats passed several laws that aim to, among other things, curb excessive force and racial bias in the criminal justice system. Several bills needed to be revised a year later, such as one that law enforcement said prohibited them from transporting some people in the middle of behavioral health crises for care.

“We are creating victims out of criminals,” said Hannah Joy, a Republican candidate for the 17th District who publishes a newspaper in Skamania County. “And this is a huge issue. We have to stop crime dead in its tracks.”

The Republican candidates, who all supported robust budgets for law enforcement, often raised behavioral health and homelessness as major issues. While many said they supported more investment in social programs, they also viewed some practices as enabling.

Anthony Ho, a Republican running in the 17th, said he supported more money to treat behavioral health disorders and substance abuse. He criticized some current efforts as “Band-Aids,” such as needle exchange programs.

“I guess if I’m trying to use an analogy here, it’s like if you have a teenager and you don’t actually hold them to a standard, hold them accountable, they will try to get away or try to do as much as they can, until someone says, ‘No, this is the line, and you can’t cross it. You’ve got to take some responsibility for yourself and move forward,’” said Ho, a retired federal law enforcement officer who currently works security at the federal courthouse in downtown Portland.

Democrats want investment in health care, education

For each of the three open seats, there is one Democratic candidate. And they each hail from fields that have recently become political flashpoints.

Terri Niles, a former intensive care nurse and labor organizer, has previously testified on health care bills and said she would support legislation that would help keep health care professionals from burning out.

“I can tell you firsthand that nurses are leaving the profession,” Niles said. “This pandemic was hard on them. They went from one of the most trusted professions to people publicly casting doubt on them.”

Niles, who is running in the 17th, shares much with a fellow candidate for the 18th. Duncan Camacho, a current ICU nurse, said he was surprised to learn more nurses hadn’t run for office after anti-mask and anti-vaccine protests became regular disruptions.

“As a nurse, you’re trying to help people, and people aren’t believing you. They really think that you have a political agenda,” Camacho said.

Camacho noted his campaign isn’t just a byproduct of pandemic frustrations. He said he frequently tracked health care bills in the Legislature and has recently become frustrated by some failing to gain traction. He said he would support efforts to lower prescription drug prices and make pharmaceutical companies more transparent.

The Democrats broadly stated their support for new infrastructure. They expressed support for current plans to replace the Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River, an estimated $5 billion overhaul.

Zingale, the middle school teacher, advocated for more school funding. He drew attention to overcrowding at Ridgefield School District, which in May saw a $62.6 million bond fail for the fifth consecutive time.

The pandemic, Zingale added, showed how many school facilities need new ventilation systems.

But Zingale said his campaign also attempts to show his students that vitriol that has seeped into hospitals and schools in recent years won’t stop people from working together.

“Students see that a lot of people are just yelling, and I want to show my students and lead by example,” he said. “I think we need to get back to governing and not just shouting at one another.”

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